Today Oñate is known for the 1599 Acoma Massacre. Following a dispute that led to the death of thirteen Spaniards at the hands of the Acoma, including Oñate's nephew, Juan de Zaldívar, Oñate ordered a brutal retaliation against Acoma Pueblo. The Pueblo was destroyed. Around 800-1000 Acoma were killed.
Of the 500 or so survivors, at a trial at Ohkay Owingeh, Oñate sentenced most to twenty years of forced "personal servitude" and additionally mandated that all men over the age of twenty-five have a foot cut off. He was eventually banished from New Mexico and exiled from Mexico City for five years, convicted by the Spanish government of using "excessive force" against the Acoma people.
Today, Oñate remains a controversial figure in New Mexican history: in 1998 the right foot was cut off a statue of the conquistador that stands in Alcalde, New Mexico in protest of the massacre, and significant controversy arose when a large equestrian statue of Oñate was erected in El Paso, Texas in 2006.
Oñate was born either in 1550 or 1552, at Zacatecas in New Spain (colonial México) to a family of Spanish-Basque colonists and silver mine owners. His father was the conquistador and silver baron Cristóbal de Oñate, a descendant of the noble house of Haro. His mother was Doña Catalina Salazar y de la Cadena who was a descendant by her maternal line of a famous Jewish converso family, the Ha-Levi's. His ancestor Cadena fought in the 1212 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in Al-Andalus, and was the first to break through the line of defense protecting Mohammad Ben Yacub. The family was granted another coat of arms, and thereafter were known as "Cadenas".